Not that I want to encourage people to talk out loud at the theater, but as the number “Jolly Holiday” got underway during Mary Poppins, I sensed some disappointment coming from Ken, my partner. I said nothing, knowing he’d lean over a few seconds later. Four, three, two … “Aw, I miss the penguins.” Yeah, I know. I do, too.
But when you’re talking about popping a beloved property like Mary Poppins out of one medium (film) and plunking it into another (musical theater), you’ve got to decide whether there’s profit in purism. It’s a week since we’ve seen the show, produced by Disney and Cameron Mackintosh and freshly transferred from London, and crestfallen Ken is getting almost uncharacteristically curmudgeonly. “Why do they have to fool around with a classic?” he asks more or less rhetorically whenever we talk about it. I mean, I don’t blame him: You hear there’s a musical version of Mary Poppins coming in from London and umpteen expectations are raised in your mind. You want penguins—Disney and Mackintosh want money.
The truth, though, is Mary Poppins will likely be profitable. More than 40 years after its release, the six-time Oscar-winner retains one of the strongest brand names ever (thanks, also, to P.L. Travers’ original stories), and since Broadway is ever-increasingly about what’s good to sell to the parents of kids who will whine incessantly until they see the show, that’s probably enough reason to “fool around” with it.
I also think sometimes you have to take things on their own terms. While the stage musical is much darker than the film, there are advantages to this. Mary Poppins—played by a toothy, resolute, eerily creepy newcomer, Ashley Brown—possesses little of Julie Andrews’ innate goodness, but at least there’s some brow-furrowed discipline coming out of her flying-nanny self toward the unruly children that inhabit the Banks household. (Presumably, the whiny kids demanding to see Mary Poppins will relate to these kids the most.) When Mary decides the best thing for these twerps is to fly away for a spell, she says it’s partly because she knows they’re good, but something about Brown’s painted smirk makes you think she really wants to whack them good. You’d think the presence of Mary’s friend Bert—a “Chim Chim Cheree” cheery Gavin Lee—would leaven her dark side, but no go. Fortunately, the exuberant Lee lights up the stage whenever he’s on it.
You also can’t blame the kids for their insouciance: Father George is played terrifically by Daniel Jenkins as a man who likely sucks on lemons; mother Winifred is essayed delightfully by Broadway mainstay Rebecca Luker. The children—played by Katherine Leigh Doherty and Matthew Gumley the night I attended—are not only right-on obnoxious, but have a marvelous stage presence—they’re haughty enough that while they hardly deserve to partake in Mary’s delirious gallivants into magical, iridescent universes, you know they’ll ultimately reform.
Mary Poppins is directed with forceful propulsion by Richard Eyre and has spectacular choreography by Matthew Bourne. Together their work is enough to put across ithey’re weak compared to the original score by the Sherman brothers. As befitting a Disney tuner, the overall design is like a new Crayola crayon box, with scintillating hues by set and costume designer Bob Crowley and lighting whiz Howard Harrison.
At a certain point—for me it was the end, when Mary Poppins ascends above the audience, rising and rising into the ether—you’re hard-pressed not to surrender to it. The best case scenario is you’ll also wish you could immerse yourself in a “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” fantasy for the ages or be willing to stomach “A Spoonful of Sugar” for a chance to dance against the moon. “I had a lump in my throat when Mary rose up into the stars at the end,” Ken finally admitted. Yeah, I know. I did too.
Open run. New Amsterdam Theatre, 214 W. 42nd St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.), 212-239-6200; $20-$110.